Britain's First Notorious Dope Smuggler Was a Wealthy Art-School Kid

Francis Morland was a prominent figure in the "new generation" sculpture movement, before trading it in to move large quantities of weed around the world in the 70s.

by Nick Chester, Photos: Chris Bethell
Jan 4 2016, 5:00am

Francis Morland in his garden

Smuggling large quantities of drugs usually requires organizational skills and a reputation for being someone not to mess with. Coordinating the transportation of boatloads of contraband in the midst of both a war on drugs and a war on terrorism is no easy feat. I would imagine that avoiding being relieved of those boatloads by other criminals is also relatively difficult, given the dog-eat-dog nature of drug trafficking. In the UK in the 60s and 70s, however, there were some of the key players who were "gentleman smugglers." These guys were members of high society who risked it all for a bit of excitement and some adventures on the high seas. They weren't particularly well-organized, and didn't fit the mould of the typical violent criminal. Francis Morland was one such smuggler.

Being the heir to an industrial fortune, Francis's younger years were a far cry from those of a typical drug trafficker. His mother was a renowned modern artist, his dad was an eminent physician, and his family would attend house parties with Princess Margaret and other dignitaries. Moreland followed in his mother's footsteps, becoming a leading member of the "new generation" sculpture movement. He then got into transporting huge quantities of dope across the world, and was the UK's first recognizable drug baron. I caught up with him to find out what made him become such a prolific criminal.

VICE: How did you first become involved in smuggling?
Francis Morland: I started off buying dope for friends. A friend of mine then came back from Morocco with some stuff hidden in a Citroen, and I wanted to do something similar. One thing led to another, and it just grew from that. There wasn't a drug scene before then, really, and there was a great excitement and enthusiasm surrounding it. I've always been a bit of a risk taker, so it appealed to me.

Was the money a motivating factor?
Part of the excitement came from the fact you could make a large amount of money from smuggling. When I first started, there was a return of 30 to one, so however much you fucked up, you could still make a lot. I was worried about the risks involved, but heedless of the risk at the same time.

What were the main methods you used?
I used a number of different methods, including putting the dope in accordions to go to America, putting it in sculptures to go to America, putting it in Citroen cars to go around Europe, and also using yachts to transport it.

You ended up serving a sentence in America. How did that come about?
We got involved with an American who said that we should get the stuff to the American Virgin Islands and hide it there. He told us they were an American territory, so he could send couriers from New York to [the island of] St Thomas to transport it and they wouldn't be searched on the way back. When we got to the islands, we found out they were a duty free zone, which means you are searched. It's like coming back from the Channel Islands. That meant we couldn't use that route. The American then stole 20 kilos and sent it to be transported, hidden in a Land Rover with a completely stoned junkie. Surprise, surprise, he got busted and told the police and customs what I was doing.

They were looking for us by the time we got to New York, so I only had about five days there. I was mending a window on my boat in the 79th Street Boat Basin when customs came down to see me. I hadn't had time to unload everything. The crew had all jumped ship because I made the mistake of paying them before they finished unloading, so I had to unload everything on my own, put it on a trolley, and then take it to a car and drive it to a flat I'd rented. Then I had to take it to the people I was selling it to downtown. It was a logistical problem.

Did anyone in the art world know what you were up to before that point, or did it come as a total shock?
I think some of them had an idea.

I can't imagine, coming from that world, that you had a lot in common with the other inmates.
You've got to understand the American criminal system. They've got federal and state prisons over there. Murder isn't a federal crime, so there were people who had done murders in there, but not people who had been convicted of murder. So you'd have organized criminals—for example, the mafia—and you'd have bank robbers, because bank robbery's a federal crime, and people in for kidnapping, bootlegging, cannibalism, shooting an American eagle... those are all federal crimes. I struck a happy medium because I wasn't part of any group. I wasn't Italian American, I wasn't Polish American, I wasn't black from Detroit or New York, so I could sit with anyone I wanted to.

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How did the English prison system compare to the American one?
The first British prison I was in was semi-open. It was awful. It was regimented and run by ex-army NCOs. Brixton, Wandsworth, and Pentonville were overcrowded and totally depersonalized, like human dustbins. Some of the open prisons had pretty good conditions.

So the American prisons were actually better than the British ones back then?
Yeah, but they're not now. I saw a documentary about Lewisburg prison—the prison I was in—20 years later, and there were two or three murders a year and people doing life sentences with no parole. You can get a life sentence for exporting over a kilo of hash in America nowadays. It's all gone insane. But it's now gone so far in that direction that they're realizing they've made an error.

How did the smuggling world back then differ to how it is now?
It was chaotic, amateurish, and disorganized. Drugs today are so complex, and there are so many of them. When I was smuggling, there was only cannabis and heroin, and heroin was something we didn't know much about.

I've heard you've still got a load of hash buried on a Caribbean island. Is that true?
It's in Fallen Jerusalem [an island in the British Virgin Islands]. It must have been there around 45 years now and is probably absolutely useless, if there's anything left of it at all.

How did it come to be buried there in the first place?
I unloaded a ton and buried it in the sand. When I left, I also buried 40 kilos separately at the top of the beach, so that if everything went wrong, I knew I had it there.

A little nest egg.
Yes, I suppose.

Francis in his pottery studio

What have you been doing since packing in the smuggling?
I've become more and more involved in pottery, going back to my roots.

Your sculpting style is quite unconventional. Do you think your lifestyle influenced the way you work at all?
Yes, my sculptures involved taking aesthetic risks. They weren't exactly what you would call "safe." Smuggling also gave me the opportunity to be free of financial considerations and meant that if I wanted to make a sculpture, I could always make it or have it made.

How do you feel about your smuggling days now that you can look back on them with the gift of hindsight?
Obviously, if I'd known what was going to happen, I wouldn't have done it. You're a product of your experience, though, and I can't imagine what I would be like if I'd have taken a different route, because it's so hypothetical.

Thanks, Francis.

You can read more about Francis' smuggling adventures in his new book The Art of Smuggling.

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